2014 First-Time Viewings: January Week 4+

National Lampoon's VacationNational Lampoon’s Vacation

Are we more forgiving towards certain comedies for their lack of polish and artistry if they succeed in making us laugh? It’s a question that came to mind when watching for the first time the inaugural misadventures of the Griswold family. Like most of the comedies around the time period featuring the same bunch of names, Vacation has a patched-together feel. Despite a screenplay credited to ’80s legend John Hughes (based on his original short story published in National Lampoon magazine), the film is more of a rough assembly of individual skits than a cohesive package. Because of this,  material with strong comic potential set up in early scenes sometimes falls by the wayside. A good example of this is when one of the Griswold children is given a bag of joints by her countrified cousin. There’s an expectation that this plot development will pay off in a big way sometime later, but other than a handful of very low-key references, that big payoff never really comes. But in a strange way, it almost doesn’t matter. Vacation, like Animal House and Caddyshack and The Blues Brothers before it, earns an enormous wealth of goodwill simply through pure, goofy energy.

It helps that I find this style of comedy immensely appealing. Vacation isn’t afraid to mine some dark territory for laughs; in fact, one of the comedic highlights centers around the gruesome and tragic fate of a dog. But that moment works because the film knows when to hold back from showing anything too explicit, choosing instead to play it light and filter everything through Clark’s embarrassed realization of what has happened.  That lightness is common throughout the film, and especially in the portrayal of Clark Griswold and his family. Like Homer Simpson in the early years before he became a cheap caricature, Clark isn’t the perfect father, but his heart is in the right place. He genuinely wants to spend time with his family, and it’s hard not to root for the guy, even when the screws start popping loose. The film may get more than a little crazy, but like Clark, there’s still an underlying good-heartedness to their adventures  that I appreciated. It’s a sweetness you rarely see in modern comedies, and it was nice to finally watch Vacation and find a film that not only provided consistent laughs, but also didn’t feel the need to season everything with too much bitterness. 8/10.

Adventures Of ZatoichiAdventures Of Zatoichi

The ninth film in the Zatoichi series. I’m starting to sense an odd pattern to my journey through these films. After every  truly stellar entry, a more ho-hum one seems destined to follow. Such was the case with Zatoichi The Fugitive after New Tale Of Zatoichi. And such is the case with this next chapter after series highlight Fight, Zatoichi, Fight.  The film opens in a traditional fashion: while journeying in between destinations, the blind swordsman runs into a panicky fugitive, who entrusts him to deliver a message to his sister in a nearby town. Zatoichi agrees to help, and in doing so finds himself caught once again in the middle of a violent scenario full of shifting loyalties and bitter betrayals. Interest is added to the proceedings with the appearance of an old town drunk, who sparks in Zatoichi memories of his long-lost father.

Now that I’ve made it a little over a third of my way through this series, I feel like I should clarify that, while some films have been more captivating than others, the consistency on display has been fairly remarkable. Even the one I found to be the least inspired in the first eight films, Zatoichi On The Road, is a professionally made and perfectly acceptable slice of adventure entertainment. I mention this because Adventures Of Zatoichi is the first film in the series to leave almost no impression of any kind with me.  It has a very nondescript quality to it, lacking in standout sequences and really anything noteworthy to distinguish itself from everything that has come before it. The only element I can single out with any interest is the appearance of Mikijiro Hira (who had terrific turns around the same time period in Sword Of The Beast, Three Outlaw Samurai, and The Face Of Another) as the enemy’s hired sword. Adventures Of Zatoichi was the last of four Zatoichi films released in 1964 alone, and even though these films were all produced cheaply and efficiently, that kind of breakneck pace was just asking for eventual diminished returns in quality. The tossed-off nature of this film then, in retrospect, was inevitable. 5/10.

Farewell, My ConcubineFarewell, My Concubine

Sometimes trying to decipher why one film leaves you grounded emotionally can be almost as interesting as trying to decipher why another film sends you over the moon. Chen Kaige’s 1993 melodrama practically screams out to be looked back on with a high level of reverence. It’s one of the benchmarks of what was to date the most fruitful period in Chinese cinema. It’s one of those sweeping epics that spans decades and pits its characters against the tumultuous political climate of the country surrounding them (much like Zhang Yimou’s To Live a year later). And it’s headlined by two of the most prominent stars of 1990s Chinese cinema (Gong Li and Leslie Cheung). Farewell, My Concubine certainly looks to have a lot going for it,  but the experience of actually watching the film is more off-putting than engrossing. The film on the surface is about the constantly-evolving and contentious friendship between Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou, two acclaimed opera singers.  Cheng has romantic feelings for his opera partner, but Duan has feelings for courtesan Juxian. Cheng perceives her arrival as a threat, one that threatens to break up the close bond he holds with Duan.

There’s a sense of detachment to much of Farewell, My Concubine, even when events turn dangerous as the country continues to fracture through social and political upheaval. It starts with the Dieyi character. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Leslie Cheung’s performance (in fact, I found him to be a better fit for his role here than the ones in Wong Kar Wai’s early films). It’s just that the character, who should be fascinating, instead comes across more as a petulant child than anything else. But his character isn’t the only element to be handled strangely; the direction itself stops the film from hitting as hard as possible in what should be the most dramatic moments. The most glaring example comes near the end when a character commits suicide. Kaige stages the sequence in just two shots. First, a wide shot showing from a distance two characters hysterical with grief (at this point there hasn’t been any indication of what they’re so upset about). Then, another extremely wide shot of the dead body hanging from the ceiling. And then that’s it; the film promptly moves on to other things, which would be a surprise if the film hadn’t been operating in the same way for the two-and-a-half hours preceding it.  It all feels a little like listening to a singles collection instead of a proper album; the big moments are there all right, but stripped of any proper context, the impact of the entire collection is severely limited. 5/10.

Trailers/Clips:

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About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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